Longform

The Gallows and the Deep

Page 6 of 7

Throughout the trial the all-male jury was kept incommunicado when not in the courtroom, and guarded after sundown by U.S. marshals against the possibility of bribery or worse. But, as prosecutors acknowledged, the twelve jurors spent their evenings devouring the hyperbolic news coverage of the trial. Alderman's defense lawyer, R.A. Hendricks, protested to no avail.

While he may or not have been as bloodthirsty as Blackbeard, Alderman was certainly no angel, and the trial judge allowed jurors to hear from prosecutors all about Alderman's prior convictions for smuggling, poaching, and grand larceny.

By night jurors read newspaper stories filled with hearsay masquerading as fact: The prior grand larceny charge, one reporter stated, had occurred when Alderman beat a Miccosukee medicine man nearly to death on a Gulf Coast beach and stole $500. The smuggling charge supposedly related to an episode in which Alderman had dumped a dozen Chinese immigrants overboard en route back from Cuba, and then machine-gunned them to death.

Though Alderman was under indictment for murdering Sanderlin and Lamby -- but not Webster, the Secret Service agent -- the jury heard more than 30 witnesses led by four federal prosecutors, including the assistant attorney general of the United States, testify about the killing of Webster and wounding of Hollingsworth in the melee aboard Alderman's boat.

Meanwhile U.S. District Judge Henry D. Clayton suppressed any mention of the recent Coast Guard killings of Waite, Shannon, and Jones, despite their importance in the defense explanation of Alderman's motive and his claim of justifiable homicide committed in self-defense.

Even by the standards of the Twenties, Clayton's legal miscues seemed to promise a mistrial or an appellate victory. But Alderman lost on appeal; the Supreme Court refused to hear the case; and finally Pres. Calvin Coolidge declined to commute the death sentence or to stay the execution.

"If ever a case in the history of criminal jurisprudence merited -- even demanded -- the death penalty, this is the case," thundered the U.S. attorney. "I can't conceive why, while that deck was slippery with the blood of their shipmates slain by this man, those Coast Guardsmen didn't mete out their own justice and save us this trouble and expense."

Faced with the technical problem of how to hang a modern pirate, U.S. District Judge Ritter dusted off his law books in Miami and found a long-superseded legal provision calling for buccaneers to be hung in the port where they were first brought ashore. To Ritter this meant Fort Lauderdale, and the Broward County jail was the logical site.

On the August 15, 1929, Ritter signed Alderman's death warrant, instructing marshals to proceed north with their captive from Dade to Broward County. Tipped off by law-enforcement sources, a Miami Herald photographer was waiting in Fort Lauderdale when Alderman arrived. The marshals beat up the cameraman and smashed his equipment, whereupon local authorities issued arrest warrants for the U.S. marshals.

Meanwhile Broward politicians sought to protect the image of their tourist resort and to respond to constituents who broadly opposed the idea of an execution. First the county fathers declared the ceiling of the jail too low for a proper hanging. When Ritter shifted the site to the roof, officials claimed the roof was insufficient to support the weight of a gallows. The federal government offered to rent a piece of land beside the courthouse, and the county agreed -- then cunningly failed to reach a quorum for the necessary vote to approve the lease.

In exasperation Ritter finally moved the place of execution to the nearest federal land -- Coast Guard Base 6 -- and recruited the sheriff of Palm Beach County to tie the noose.

The more real the hanging became, the more Alderman transmogrified from backwoods brute to high-minded Bible-thumper. He began wearing a suit and spectacles, the latter necessitated by too much late-night Scripture reading. Whether calculated or sincere, Alderman's new martyr-image resonated in the public mind. Hendricks, the defense lawyer, claimed to have a petition signed by ten of the twelve Alderman jurors asking for a Justice Department review of the entire case.

The petition, if it ever existed, came too late. After mounting the steps of the scaffold and receiving the black hood, Alderman committed his final, unexpected, and defiant act. He began to sing a hymn, and kept on singing until the moment when the trap door dropped.

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Sean Rowe